2: Unexpected Blessings

2: Unexpected Blessings

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Unexpected Blessings

Weave in faith and God will find the thread.

~Author Unknown

When I opened the large manila envelope and read about an opportunity to volunteer with the September 11th Families Association as a docent for the 9/11 Tribute Center, I had no idea what amazing adventures, opportunities and blessings lay before me. To be honest, as I held that envelope I didn’t know what a docent was. I had to look the word up in the dictionary. My next thought was that I was not even a member of the Association. I hadn’t joined any groups in the four years since Bruce’s death in the line of duty on September 11, 2001.

As I traveled into New York City for my first interview, I was nervous. I knew nothing about lower Manhattan or the World Trade Center. I had only been to the World Trade Center twice in my whole life. I barely knew the September 11th timeline of events. Growing up in New Jersey, the “stomping” ground of my youth had always been from the Port Authority to Columbus Circle, for auditions and dance classes, or Greenwich Village for acting lessons. But all of that was a lifetime ago. In recent years my trips into the city had been to take my girls to the Rockefeller Center tree lighting or a Broadway show or up north to the Bronx Zoo. Traveling into lower Manhattan was new and scary. What was I thinking?

Actually, I knew exactly what I was thinking. The 9/11 Tribute Center’s mission was “person-to-person” history and I knew I could do that. I could tell Bruce’s and my story. I had already told “our” story many times, but that was in churches or at ladies’ groups. This was a whole new thing, but I knew I had to try.

A few weeks after the interview, I attended a two-day training session. I felt like I was going to throw up the whole time I was driving into Manhattan. I was sure I was in way over my head. “Lord, I am willing to try this, but let me know you want me to do it.”

As I timidly entered the room for the training session, I scanned the faces, looking for Rachel, the person who had interviewed me. Wait! That’s Bruce’s captain from Squad 41. Wow! Thank you, Lord. Someone I know. A nod from God.

The training was going along nicely and then it was mentioned that you shouldn’t get political. Well, that was fine; I am not political. Then a fellow trainee commented that “you shouldn’t get too religious either.” I cautiously raised my hand. “If we aren’t allowed to mention God I will respect that, but to tell my story I need to mention God because God is a big part of my story.” The response was “if God is your story, you can mention God.” Wow! Another big nod from God.

So I started volunteering. I studied, read, practiced and led walking tours around the World Trade Center site. I discovered where to park and where to get coffee. When the Tribute Center galleries opened in September 2006, I started speaking to school and other groups in the center as well as leading the walking tours. I watched the World Trade Center site go from an empty hole in the ground to a beautiful memorial and vibrant neighborhood. I have led or supported more than four hundred tours in nine years and spoken to various groups.

One group that stood out was composed of teens from Lebanon, South Africa, Ireland and Israel. It was a humbling experience to speak with these young people of multiple faiths. As I sat on the floor of the Tribute Center, I shared my story and taught them about the original World Trade Center and the events of September 11, 2001. I was struck by the fact that it was July 4th. Exactly thirty-five years earlier, on July 4, 1976, Bruce and I had visited the World Trade Center observation deck. I remembered the date because everyone had discouraged us from heading into the city on such a busy day — America’s 200th birthday. There was very little traffic and I only remember it because of the date’s significance.

When I tell my story while leading walking tours, I say “There are three things that have gotten me through my personal loss in the midst of an international tragedy. The first thing is my faith. God has gotten me through. And the second is the fact that my husband was a New York City firefighter. It was his job to go into those buildings. A job that he loved. The third thing is family and friends. We don’t do life alone. I have a wonderful family and great friends. I also have many new friends through volunteering with Tribute who never met Bruce but know his story. They do life with me.”

When I started doing tours, I only had my story and that was enough. But now I know the stories of my fellow docents — other family members, survivors, fire responders, rescue workers — who saw things no one should ever see, and downtown residents who couldn’t go home for months. I believe the story of September 11th is like a mosaic made of little pieces. They don’t connect like a puzzle but they lie next to each other to make the picture of what happened on September 11, 2001 — hundreds of thousands of experiences that come together to tell the story.

Being a docent has been an unexpected blessing for me. I love giving tours and am awed by my fellow docents and everyone at Tribute — an amazing group of people. I am blessed by the number of visitors who take the time to come on walking tours and learn not only the history but the individual stories. So on Monday I will talk to two school groups, lead the 1 p.m. tour and then help out with the 3 p.m. tour. To quote one of my fellow docents: “I will get my volunteer on.”

There have been even more benefits for me. My decision to pursue this volunteer opportunity led to two trips to Japan to share my 9/11 story with survivors of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. I was humbled and blessed beyond measure to be able to share my story as an avenue to encourage others. As I help others, my healing continues.

~Ann Clark Van Hine

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